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Tom McLeish


Colleagues will be sorry to learn of the death, on 27 February 2023, of Professor Tom McLeish on the 27 February 2023, Professor of Polymer Physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy.

Tom was a world leading theoretician in the field of Soft Matter Physics, and was also internationally recognised for his interdisciplinary work combining science, theology and the creative arts.

After gaining his PhD in polymer physics from the University of Cambridge in 1987, Tom took an ICI Research Fellowship at the Cavendish Laboratories before moving to the University of Sheffield as an early career lecturer in 1989.

In 1993 Tom was appointed Professor of Polymer Physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University, where he became head of the Polymer and Complex Fluids group (now the Soft Matter Physics research group).

During his time at Leeds, as well as leading an internationally acclaimed research group, Tom was instrumental in creating and maintaining interdisciplinary research across the University and beyond. In 1998 Tom instigated the Leeds Life Science Interface to promote discussions between physical scientists and life scientists working at Leeds, and he used this platform to encourage UK research councils towards joint funding across the sciences. In 2000 Tom created the Microscale Polymer Processing consortium which he ran until 2010. Funded by two substantial EPSRC grants, this project employed a small army of postdoctoral physical scientists, mathematicians and engineers across eight UK universities, working with industrial partners to design and manufacture new polymer materials. In 2003 Tom was appointed director of the Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Polymer Science and Technology, a consortium between the Universities of Bradford, Durham, Leeds and Sheffield, a position he held until 2008. Tom’s passion for interdisciplinarity across the sciences is reflected by the fact that he was made a Fellow of the Institute of Physics in 2003, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2008 and an honorary Fellow of the British Biophysical Society in 2016.

It was while working at Leeds that Tom was awarded the 2007 Weissenberg Medal by the European Society of Rheology for “outstanding, long-term achievements in the field of rheology”. He went onto receive the British Society of Rheology Gold Medal in 2009 and the Society of Rheology Bingham Medal in 2010. In 2017 Tom was the first recipient of the Institute of Physics Sam Edwards Medal for “distinguished contributions in soft matter physics”. However, perhaps his most notable achievement was to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2011. When recounting this, he described with his typical enthusiasm the excitement of holding a pen once held by Sir Isaac Newton.

Tom left the University in 2008 when he was appointed Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University, a post he held until 2014. In Durham, Tom spread his wings as a truly interdisciplinary polymath, extending his research to include history, philosophy, theology and the creative arts. Tom became passionate about bridging the sciences and humanities or, as he described it, “digging down to find the common core”. Yet he remained a soft matter scientist at heart, in 2014 leading the group that designed and obtained funding for the Centre for Doctoral Training in Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces (SOFI CDT). Here, Durham joined forces with Leeds and Edinburgh to train a new generation. Now in its second iteration as SOFI2 CDT, and currently recruiting its tenth cohort of students, this project will lead to around 160 PhDs (40 of which are at Leeds).

Tom had a deeply held Christian faith, which for him was wholly inseparable from his academic pursuits.  He was a licenced lay minister in the Church of England, preaching regularly in York where he lived. In 2014 he published the book “Faith and Wisdom in Science”. Rejecting the narrative of conflict between faith and science, this book instead searched for common ground, developing a historically grounded theology of science. His 2019 book, “The poetry and music of science” likewise exposed the creative commonalities between the arts and the sciences. Whilst at Durham, Tom conceived the ECLAS project (“Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science”) encouraging senior Christian leaders in their engagement with science. In 2018 Tom received the Lanfranc Award for Education and Scholarship from the Archbishop of Canterbury, “for his record as one of the most outstanding scientists of his generation, and the leading contemporary lay Anglican voice in the dialogue of science and faith”.

In 2018 Tom also moved to the University of York to take up the newly created Chair in Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics: Tom always preferred the term Natural Philosophy (literally, “love of wisdom concerning natural things”) to science (literally, “I know”).  At York, Tom worked with the Physics of Life group and colleagues from across the University including the Centres for Medieval Studies and Arts and Humanities Research.

However, despite his long and very distinguished career, most people who knew Tom will remember him for his enthusiasm, warmth, generosity and kindness, as described by Dr Sarah Harris a Soft Matter Physicist from the School:

“Tom was deeply respected for many good reasons. He was terrifyingly smart, he achieved much both within and for the soft matter community; there is a long and highly impressive list. Personally, I will miss his kindness the very most. Tom was able to see and appreciate what disadvantaged, worried or scared people, and he used this insight to be nice. He could see that people from different places or backgrounds, or who had health issues, faced particular problems and he supported them. He never judged, and was there to help. He didn’t care if you weren’t as smart as him, or if you hadn’t achieved as many prestigious things. He just wanted you to be ok, and to do your very best, and he would always defend you if you needed it. If we can all remember this particularly special aspect of Tom, and be inspired by him to be a bit kinder and more understanding, then this, I believe, is the best way to honour his memory. I will certainly try my very best, and I hope you will too.”

Tom inspired and supported generations of students and academics across many disciplines. As summarised by Mike Ries, “To say that Tom will be missed would be such an understatement”. Our heartfelt condolences are with Tom’s wife Julie, their four children and two grandchildren.